British Columbia

Demand for online library content soars during pandemic

When the District of North Vancouver closed its libraries in mid-March due to the COVID-19 pandemic, e-book use immediately increased by about 60 per cent.

People starved for free sources of entertainment flock to library services while buildings remain closed

Demand for the Vancouver Public Library's online content has surged since facilities closed to the public on March 16, 2020. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC) (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

When the District of North Vancouver closed its libraries in mid-March due to the COVID-19 pandemic, e-book use immediately increased by about 60 per cent.

Any avid reader will tell you, however, that reading on your phone or tablet isn't the same as sitting down with an actual, good old fashioned book.

That's why director of library services Jacqueline van Dyk says they've figured out a way to keep lending books, even though their doors are locked to the public.

"I think normalcy is something that people are craving," she said. "Being able to go to the library and pick up a book feels normal."

Members can go online or call the library to request books, then staff find the selections and put them in bags.

The cardholder is given a pickup time to avoid crowding and when they arrive, they show identification to staff through a window.

Once their ID is confirmed, they back away two metres from the window and a staff member leaves their books outside the door.

"As soon as we closed our doors, people started asking how they can get at the books because they had every piece of entertainment cancelled in their lives," van Dyk said.

"We had 200 orders just Wednesday and that's without any big fanfare."

When members return their books in the drop slot, staff aren't allowed to touch them for a period of 72 hours as a safety precaution.

Staff leave messages, artwork and even puzzles on windows to engage with the public while library buildings are closed. The District of North Vancouver's director of library services, Jacqueline van Dyk, calls it "window librarianship." (Maggie MacPherson/CBC) (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

Digital shift

Vancouver Public Library director of collections and technology Kay Cahill says more than a thousand new members signed up for cards in the weeks after they closed. 

"A lot of people have been hit really hard by this pandemic," she said.

"They maybe can't afford subscription services and we can provide a lot of what's provided on those services without charge."

The VPL, like most other libraries throughout the region, isn't lending out physical books, but staff have been flooded with calls from people who want to access online content.

"We have been in the middle of a tremendous pivot toward entirely digital services," she said.

"The increase in use we've seen in those is just staggering."

She says many of their new cardholders are parents who are looking for ways to keep their children busy.

Jacob Stewart, who lived at the Oppenheimer encampment in Vancouver for six months, says he misses going to the library to study math and read books. (Jesse Johnston/CBC)

People without computers

Outside Oppenheimer Park, the tent city in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, Jacob Stewart looks forward to the library reopening so that he can go back to studying calculus and reading books.

Stewart, who recently moved from the park to a hotel room the province is providing as temporary accommodation, says he can't access the library's online collection because he doesn't have a computer.

"I was [studying math] every day on the computer at the library but now I can't go," he said.

"I'm looking forward to doing my math again and reading again."

Cahill acknowledges it's a difficult time for people who don't have internet access and says those services will once again be made available as soon as it's safe enough to do so.

"We'll obviously be very committed to bring back those services that we know people really need and they miss," she said.

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Jesse Johnston worked in private radio from 2004 to 2014 in Vancouver, Red Deer and Calgary. He spent the next five years based out of Surrey (his hometown) as CBC's South of the Fraser reporter until he joined the Impact Team in 2019. Jesse is a two-time recipient of the RTDNA Dave Rogers Award for Best Short Radio Feature. He loves radio, running and dogs. He also loves the Detroit Lions, but if you follow him on Twitter, you already knew that. @Jesse_Johnston